How Technology Makes Us Less Free
Franklin Foer: "We’re Drifting Toward Monopoly, Conformism, and Machines"
There is a piece of technology hailed as inevitable, almost universally assumed to present consumers with an irresistible choice. It has fallen short of expectations—and in that gap between the hype and reality, we can see the public unconsciously gravitating toward a profound critique, the stirrings of a backlash.
When Jeff Bezos unveiled the first Kindle in 2007, I ordered it straightaway. As a lifelong fetishist of the book, this didn’t quite feel right. But I withstood a surge of guilt about my small role in the metamorphosis of reading. In truth, the device was the invention of my dreams. The bookstore and the book, two of my favorite things, had merged into one piece of hardware. There was the promise that every volume in existence could be downloaded to the hand in less time than it took to yawn.
The device itself was wonky. It came with a keyboard that barely worked and an inelegant joystick that tested manual dexterity. Pages flipped at the wrong moment. The Kindle, however, was magic. I went on a spending spree—and unlike trips to the bookstore, the binges didn’t culminate in messy piles and never filled me with guilt about all the unread volumes staring at my desk. For a year, the Kindle traveled in the outside pocket of my tote and slept on my side table. Its off-white shell acquired a blackish tint from the attention of my grubby paws.
On the Amazon site, it’s possible to retrieve an inventory of the devices that one has registered to access Kindle editions, a personal history of hardware. Over time, I have owned three Kindles, three iPads, and six iPhones, the makings of a minor environmental catastrophe. To be clear, I keep the discarded gizmos in a box in the basement that will someday find its way to an appropriate recycling facility, maybe.
But if technology blinds us with its magic, the magic can wear off. By the time my third Kindle rolled in, I found myself returning to paper. My reversion wasn’t self-conscious. It happened slowly. I never really stopped collecting physical books. Because I worked for a magazine, review copies would arrive in the office with the postman. And there were old books that I couldn’t find on the Kindle, which I ordered from used-book sellers. The paper editions began to beckon. I didn’t think much about my transition back to paper. It just magnetically occurred.
I have no principled or scientific objections to screens. The Internet is my home for most of the day. Twitter captures a huge share of my attention. I’m grateful for the rush of information, the microscopic way it is possible to follow politics and soccer and poetry and journalistic gossip. It’s strange, though, to look back and recall a day’s worth of reading. Of course, I could probably pose the question to my computer and find a precise record. But if I sit at my desk and try to list all the tweets and articles and posts that have crossed my transom, there are very few that I actually remember. Reading on the Web is a frantic activity, compressed, haphazard, not always absorbed.
Apologists for the Internet are very clear on the point. The Internet is a very different medium, which inspires its own rhythms and intellectual biases. Where paper is fixed—words on a page can’t be changed; books have beginnings and endings—the Internet is fluid. As Kevin Kelly has written, the digital world proves that “good things don’t have to be static, unchanging.”
The Internet is an unending conversation; every argument is rebutted, shared, revised, and extended. It is a real-time extension of happenings in the world, exhilarating and exhausting.
I suppose my abandonment of the Kindle is a response to this exhaustion. It’s not that the Kindle is a terrible device. In fact, it’s downright placid compared to the horns and jackhammers blaring on social media. But after so many hours on the Web, I crave escaping the screen, retreating to paper.
If I were to justify this choice, I would argue that the Kindle doesn’t fully provide respite from the Web. The Kindle may tamp down the noise, but it still doesn’t provide a state of isolation. Amazon tracks every movement across its e-books. It uses the data it gleans from Kindles to predict the commercial efficacy of the books it sells. It tracks the passages that we underline—and shares those markings with our fellow readers. It remains a fortress of big tech, umbilically connected to an exclusive store. The Kindle is an effective simulation of a book, yet it’s still a simulation.
It was predicted that e-books would overtake the paper book, that they would become the totality of publishing. In 2010, the founder of MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, was precise about the hour that paper would perish. “It’s happening in 5 years.” Well, doomsday has come and gone. Paper books have held their ground, and e-book sales have failed to accumulate at their predicted pace. Actually, they have plummeted. In 2015, e-book revenue dropped by 11 percent, while brick-and-mortar bookstore revenue increased by nearly 2 percent. My turn away from the Kindle wasn’t an idiosyncrasy, but part of a widespread tendency. My hunch is that a good portion of the reading public wants an escape from the intense flow of the Internet; they want silent reading, private contemplation—and there’s a nagging sense that paper, and only paper, can induce such a state. The popular gravitation back to the page—not the metaphorical page, but the fibrous thing you can rub between your fingers—is a gravitation back to fundamental lessons from the history of reading.
“The Kindle remains a fortress of big tech, umbilically connected to an exclusive store.”
I apologize for the following disclosure, which isn’t intended to implant any insoluble images: My favorite place to read is the tub. A warm soak, the platonic state of mental openness and relaxation but for the possibility of water damage to the page. If the tub is occupied by another member of my brood, I will tolerate the bed. Obese pillows behind the back, a strong lamp spotlighting the text.
It’s a banal disclosure, really. These are quite common locales for reading, perhaps the most common. Indeed, the entire history of the printed word points toward consuming books in such intimate settings, toward reading alone in our places of refuge. We choose to read in private to escape, but also because of the intellectual possibilities that this escape creates.
During the early Middle Ages, the book was quite literally a miracle. It was the means by which a priest conveyed the word of God. Literacy was sparse. In Europe, maybe one in one hundred people could read. As the historian Steven Roger Fischer puts it, “to read” was to read aloud. Silent reading was a highly unusual practice. There are only a handful of recorded instances of it, worthy of note because they so shocked observers. Reading was perhaps the ultimate social activity. Storytellers read to the market, priests read to their congregations, lecturers read to university students, the literate read aloud to themselves. Medieval texts commonly asked audiences to “lend ears.”
Despite the relative intellectual bleakness of the era, literacy slowly crept beyond a small elite. The growth of commerce created the glimmerings of a new merchant class, along with professional texts that catered to its needs. Texts—once imposing blocks of letters, with one word jammed into the next, no white spaces separating them—were tamed by new syntactical rules. There were increasingly breaks between words, punctuation even. Reading grew less strenuous, more accessible. It took several hundred years for the changes to fully register, for public reading to give way to silent reading.
It was one of the most profound transformations in human history. Reading ceased to be a passive, collective experience. It became active and private. Silent reading changed thinking; it brought the individual to the fore. The act of private reading—in beds, in libraries—provided the space for heretical thought. Fischer described the change:
Active silent reading now prevailed, which demanded engagement. Hereby a reader became a doer, insofar as an author was now merely a guide who showed her or his silent and invisible audience a variety of paths. If early medieval listener-readers had almost always heard one chorus of voices singing Christian litany in harmonized unison, “humanist” scholars of the late Middle Ages were silently reading an entire world of voices, each singing a different song and in many tongues . . . . After generations of weaning from the oral thrall, countless readers could at last admit like Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ: “I have sought for happiness everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book.”
There’s a strong impulse in our culture to run away from these little corners. We’re told that society’s winners will be the thinkers who network, collaborate, create, and strategize in concert with others. Our kids are taught to study in groups, to execute projects as teams. Our workplaces have been stripped of walls so that the organization functions as a unit. The big tech companies also propel us to join the crowd—they provide us with the trending topics and their algorithms suggest that we read the same articles, tweets, and posts as the rest of the world.
There’s no doubting the creative power of conversation, the intellectual potential of humbly learning from our peers, the necessity of groups working together to solve problems. Yet none of this should replace contemplation, moments of isolation, where the mind can follow its own course to its own conclusions.
We read in our little corners, our beds and tubs and dens, because we have a sense that these are the places where we can think best. I have spent my life searching for an alternative. I will read in the café and on the subway, making a diligent, wholehearted effort to focus the mind. But it never entirely works. My mind can’t shake its awareness of the humans in the room.
When we read deeply and with full commitment, we enter an almost trancelike state that mutes the outside world. The distance between words on the page and the scampering abstractions in our head collapses. As with the first generations of silent readers, heretical thoughts come and go; we’re stripped of intellectual inhibitions. That’s why we habitually retreat with our book to private spaces, where we don’t need to worry about social conventions, where the world can’t possibly read over our shoulder. That’s why we can’t jettison paper, even though the tech companies have tried their hardest to bring that about.
If the tech companies hope to absorb the totality of human existence into their corporate fold, then reading on paper is one of the few slivers of life that they can’t fully integrate. The tech companies will consider this an engineering challenge waiting to be solved. Everyone else should take regular refuge in the sanctuary of paper. It is our respite from the ever-encroaching system, a haven we should self-consciously occupy. Our model for resistance is the Czech novelist.
“When we read deeply and with full commitment, we enter an almost trancelike state that mutes the outside world.”
Milan Kundera was the dirtiest novelist of his era. He was the laureate of the orgy, the great stylist of bedroom humiliation, the literary explicator of transgressive copulation in its full diversity. To be sure, this obsession hardly distinguished him from other Czech authors of his time. Josef Škvorecký and Ivan Klíma also wrote lots of sex—rampant, promiscuous, graphic—into their tales. They penned masterworks of titillation, though that wasn’t wholly the point. A totalitarian society attempts to obliterate private life, whereas the novelist seeks to inhabit it. Sex was an obsession because it seemingly provided an antidote to the omniscient state. It was a realm, a genuine human experience, uncontrolled by the state.
Surveillance on the Internet is far different from the monitoring of the totalitarian state. The Soviet Union and its family of nations watched citizens to breed paranoia, to enforce the dogmas of the party, and ultimately to preserve a small elite’s undemocratic hold on power. We’re watched on the Internet so that companies can more effectively sell us goods.
The fact that Internet surveillance isn’t totalitarian, however, doesn’t mean that it does us no harm. We’re watched so that we can be manipulated. Some of this manipulation is welcome. We might revel in algorithmic recommendations of music, we’re pleased to be shown an advertisement for sneakers, we need computer help sifting through the mass of information. But there’s another way to describe the convenience of the machine: It is the surrender of free will—algorithms make choices for us. This isn’t so terrible, because our submission to manipulation is largely willing. Yet we rightly have a sense that we’re surrendering far more than we intend and that we’re being manipulated far more than we know.
Our digital future may be as glorious as advertised, or it could be a dystopian hell. But as citizens and readers, there’s good reason to throw sand in the machine. Only government policy can really dent the monopolies that increasingly control the world of ideas. But we can find moments when we willfully remove ourselves from the orbit of these companies and their ecosystems. It’s not a matter of dropping out, but of giving ourselves moments to ourselves.
The Czech novelists searched for the seams in the state, where they might escape watchful eyes. Paper—in the form of books, magazines, and newspapers—is the seam that we can inhabit. It’s the place beyond the monopolies, where we don’t leave a data trail, where we are untracked. When we read words on paper, we’re removed from the notifications, pings, and other urgencies summoning us away from our thoughts. The page permits us, for a time in our day, to decouple from the machine, to tend to our human core.
“Only government policy can really dent the monopolies that increasingly control the world of ideas.”
The questions at the heart of this issue are especially sticky for Americans. Over our history, we’ve considered ourselves the vanguard of twin revolutions, one scientific, the other political. We’ve posed as the world’s great incubator of technology, its premier inventor—which perfectly expressed our national character, our experimental republic, with its frontiersmen venturing into the unknown. This revolution in engineering was, of course, intimately connected to the American Revolution. Both were products of the same Enlightenment. They carried the same faith in reason. Our great early technologists—Franklin, Jefferson—were profound exponents of political liberty. The United States loudly promoted the gospels of technology and individualism, evangelically spreading them over the globe. We innovated relentlessly in both—creating lightbulbs and the right to privacy, the assembly line and the protection of speech.
The twin revolutions abetted each other. They pushed forward together, with only fleeting moments of tension. For the most part, our liberty created an economy—dynamic, iconoclastic—that strongly incentivized the act of creation. And inventions furthered the cause of liberty, allowing for new means of personal expression, freedom of mobility, the fulfillment of self.
That’s why the present moment feels so profoundly uncomfortable. Our faith in technology is no longer fully consistent with our belief in liberty. We’re nearing the moment when we will have to damage one of our revolutions to save the other. Privacy can’t survive the present trajectory of technology. Our ideas about the competitive marketplace are at risk. The proliferation of falsehood and conspiracy through social media, the dissipation of our common basis for fact, is creating conditions ripe for authoritarianism. Over time, the long merger of man and machine has worked out pretty well for man. But we’re pulling into a new era, when that merger threatens the individual.
Human nature is malleable. It’s not some fixed thing, but has a breaking point, a point at which our nature is no longer really human. We might decide to sail happily past that threshold, but we need to be honest about the costs. Right now, we’re not steering our course. We’re drifting without countervailing pressure from the political system, from media, or from the intelligentsia. We’re drifting toward monopoly, conformism, their machines.
In this era of rapid automation, when the Internet connects to nearly everyone and everything, the thought of steering our own course can feel foolish and futile. “Our very mastery seems to escape our mastery,” the philosopher Michel Serres has argued. “How can we dominate our domination?” It’s a fretful question, but it also implies that humans have untapped reserves of agency. Technology companies aspire to pattern our lives and habits, yet the lives and habits remain ours. Perhaps as a society we will spring to our senses and impose the wise policies of state that protect the culture, democracy, and the individual from the corrosiveness of these corporations. In the meantime, we need to protect ourselves.
We have deluded ourselves into caring more deeply about convenience and efficiency than about the things that last. Compared to the sustaining nourishment of the contemplative life and the deep commitment to text, many of the promiscuous pleasures of the Web are vanishing. The contemplative life remains freely available to us through our choices—what we read and buy, how we commit to leisure and self-improvement, the passing over of empty temptation, our preservation of the quiet spaces, an intentional striving to become the masters of our mastery.
From World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Used with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright 2017 by Franklin Foer.